SAN FRANCISCO — With some artists, what you hear on the album is what you hear in concert. It’s either because their songs are written to be played live or because it just works for both; there’s little difference between the two. Others, however, rearrange songs for a live audience so drastically that it’s sometimes hard to tell it’s the same band.
Thursday night’s co-headliners at San Francisco’s Gray Area, Japanese Breakfast and Oakland’s Jay Som, definitely fall into the latter group. Backed by guitars, bass, and drums, both bands turned the ethereal sound of their album tracks into various types of concert-ready rock songs, and to great effect.
Of the two, Japanese Breakfast went first. Originally a solo side project of Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner and with two albums under her belt, it’s become a popular band in its own right. Supplementing the ambient qualities of the album with catchy bass lines and instrumentals reminiscent of late-’60s psychedelic rock, the band turns what could be a dreary show into an engaging performance. And the touch of AutoTune in “Machinist,” a sci-fi themed love song about a robot, which is the first single from her latest album, didn’t hurt either.
Adding even more to the show is Zauner’s skills as a frontwoman. Climbing on monitors and jumping down into the crowd, she got the crowd’s attention back after a couple stationary opening acts and kept them hooked with some impressive guitar solos. She also charmed the crowd with endearingly honest stage banter; at one point, she introduced a second song as being about oral sex, paused, and said, “I guess I have a lot of songs about oral sex. … Huh.”
Zauner also confessed that for a while she had a reflective dislike of the Bay Area, but that becoming friends with Melina Duterte of Jay Som softened her a bit. “It’s expensive … very expensive … but it’s beautiful,” she said, before explaining that the music video for Jay Som’s “The Bus Song,” which she directed, was a love letter to the region.
Speaking of Duterte and Jay Som, they closed out the night with a similarly well-adapted set. The early songs had an almost Fleetwood Mac feel to them, combining raw, emotional vocals with almost dreamlike guitars and drums with a bit more flair than standard pop-rock. (Though the bass player could stand to calm down a little; this isn’t Primus; we’re not here to hear you—let your singer shine.)
Later on in the show, though, we got a taste of the band’s range. One song would have a touch of bubbly early-’60s pop, and the next would have grungy instrumentals better suited to a hard rock power ballad. It added a lot of musical diversity to the show, but stayed anchored in Duterte’s vocals. As far as the music strayed, it never felt disjointed because she was always there keeping us centered.
Also like her co-headliner–they’re very similar artists, as it turns out, and a good match for a lineup–Duterte can shred on a guitar given the opportunity. As strange as it sounds for what’s essentially a pop act, I wouldn’t have minded a guitar solo per song.
Coming in before the headliners was the third member of their tour, Hand Habits. Standing alone with a guitar, in contrast to the rest, Meg Duffy stayed true to her roots and played the expansive, atmospheric songs she recorded.
While the crowd’s attention did drift at times, her ability to create such a full, engrossing sound with just her voice and a guitar was more than a little amazing. Imagine Chris Isaak as a woman with impressive guitar chops, and you would be close to the effect.
That said, Duffy’s stage presence could use some work. While I’m not expecting pyrotechnics and backup dancers, moving around the stage a bit could help, or some confident, clearly-enunciated stage banter. It’s a minor complaint—the audience was there to see a musician, not a stand-up comedian—but if I had to pick a fault, that would be it.
(There was an opening act, a one-man band called Screaming. Let’s just say it’s appropriately named and leave it at that.)
All in all, it was a well-balanced collection of complementary musicians, each bringing their own experiences and sensibilities to a common genre. And, given the choice between a studio album or a live album from any of the three, I would probably pick the live album; the crowd, and the backing band, brings their music alive.